Following the terrific The Violence, the third and final album in Darren Hayman’s Essex Witch Trials trilogy, Hayman and his band The Short Parliament release Bugbears, an album about 17th and 18th century England. On Bugbears, the sometime Hefner lead singer and guitarist has offered a contemporary spin on old tales of woe, embodying the punk peasant spirit that characterizes some of the best releases by similar lyrics-heavy bands like The Mountain Goats.
The songs on Bugbears recall drinking, brotherhood, and soldierhood in an old-timey, raw fashion that’s thankfully far from the overproduced folk pop of some of today’s most popular “folk” acts. While Mumford And Sons, The Lumineers, and Of Monsters And Men certainly write catchy melodies, a personality like Hayman doesn’t make music as accessible as those radio bands because he takes a challenging look at the history from which English folk style came.
In simpler terms, he’s rugged rather than clean, and not shy to sing about or recall in his music the brutalities of war and old-fashioned misogyny and deviousness. The Owl, for instance, is an entirely instrumental, mostly acoustic guitar-laden ballad apparently adapted from an old drinking song, while, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Bold Astrologer tells the story of a creepy astrologer who deceives a young girl. The latter especially sports haunting acoustic instrumentation in between Hayman’s cracked-voice verses, truly disorienting the listener.
Meanwhile, other songs on Bugbears take the Old English folk aesthetic and adopt it to ’60s/’70s-era pop, as on the title track, which is actually kind of bouncy in comparison to the rest of the album. On the title track and in the album in general, Hayman’s weary, Britpop-appropriate voice adds a morose, emotional, but never overly-sentimental sonic depth to the songs. The strings on Bugbears also add an emotional weight to the often-barren songs, a trend most notable on the instrumental Sir Thomas Fairfax March, likely named after the parliamentary commander in chief during the English Civil War. The subtle, almost hushed drums on instrumental tracks like Sir Thomas Fairfax March and The Owl make you feel as though you’re almost listening to a militaristic march in a society in which war and death are simply things to deal with on a daily basis. Yet, similarly to recent releases by Eluvium or The Handsome Family, Hayman somehow makes dreary and depressing subjects fascinating and hopeful to take in.
Occasionally, the songs on Bugbears approach worn territory. Seven Months Married describes a woman in an unhappy marriage whose husband returns to her bed every night a bit overzealous, which is funny but comes across overcooked. And while you might rather hear Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig sing about Babylon than listen to Hayman’s musical interpretation of its fall, the African-style drumming of Babylon Has Fallen saves it from succumbing to cliché. In general, the drums on Bugbears make the least interesting songs worth a few more listens, even if it doesn’t render them dynamic.
Overall, Bugbears is an album that reveals something new on repeat listens, from the background noise on the Wilco-esque Hey Then Up We Go to the guitar and piano echoes on The Contented. Even if you’re not a Hefner fan, there’s something for you in Hayman’s recent folk music if you appreciate new spins on tradition; tradition meaning long before rock ‘n’ roll and modern styles of warfare even existed. Hayman may sing about impossibilities, but with Bugbears, he’s proved that it’s possible to turn the ancient into the contemporary and the fatalistic into the optimistic.